Volume 22, Number 3 July 1993


From the Outgoing Chair

This year has been, I think, quite a successful one from our Forum's point of view. We are managing well the transition from arms control and defense-oriented issues to other matters, dictated by the direction the Nation and the world are going. At the intersection of physics and society in the US, there is a return to interest in energy and efficiency issues as well as global climate (and other) change; there is an arousal of interest in science and the law (partly fueled by the Daubert v. Merrill Dow case now before the Supreme Court); there is renewed interest in public perceptions of science and scientific issues; and, above all, an interest in the job market, especially for new physicists. There is, of course, still a more than residual interest in security affairs, including the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and advanced conventional weapons.

We have had sessions, both at the Seattle and the Spring meetings, reflecting most of the above. On the job front, our new Vice-Chair Al Saperstein has begun a study on jobs and career opportunities in physics which will, we hope, produce a useful document within about 18 months.

Further, due to Norm Chonacky's tireless work, there is now a means of electronic communication available to the Forum. If you wish to be connected contact CHONACKY @ UPS.EDU or MACY @ POLAR.BOWDOIN.EDU. We will try to improve even further our capabilities in this area in the coming year. And Lisbeth Gronlund, with Norm Chonacky, Nancy Forbes, and Art Hobson, have begun an outreach program to try to expand our forum's membership. We now have had tables at the two major meetings this year, to recruit members and stimulate interest. We hope to continue these efforts.

Finally, we have decided, along with the Division on Plasma Physics, to cosponsor a Dwight Nicholson Award for Humanitarian Service, in memory of the recent Chair of the Physics Department at the University of Iowa who was killed by a deranged graduate student.

The Newsletter continues to be fresh and interesting under the able tutelage of Art Hobson. We are making progress in widening our scope and our membership, and I am confident we shall proceed successfully in this direction with Marc Ross as our Chair for the coming year. I welcome him to his new post, thank my colleagues for all their help during the past year, and offer my services to aid the incoming Executive Board in any way I can.

Anthony Fainberg

Three Story Lines for a Physics Course

I've had the good fortune to spend the past two years writing a textbook for a liberal-arts physics course. It is tied together by four story lines: energy, and the three topics discussed below. I welcome your comments.

Social effects of science

Occasionally, when I talk with groups, I ask them to call out any significant contemporary problems that come to mind. It doesn't take long to amass quite a list: overpopulation, urban decay, extinctions, cults, and all the rest. While collecting suggestions, it becomes apparent that they all have significant science and technology components.

Without science we would have other problems, such as early death by disease, but we would not have the particular problems we have today. For instance, because medical science has partly solved the problem of death by disease, we now have the problem of overpopulation. The death problem has been replaced, in a sense, by a birth problem. Because we have accepted science's help in solving the "death" side of the birth-and-death equation, but have not simultaneously taken responsibility for the "birth" side, the planet has more people than it can handle.

Science gives us great power, and we can use that power in helpful or harmful ways. Without science and technology, we would not have the automobile or television, for example. When you turn the switch on either device, you bring great power to bear on yourself, on others, and on Earth.

The problems of science and society really come down to this: humankind is not paying its dues for the fruits of science. We are quick to accept the speed of the automobile, the fun of television, and the cures of medicine, but we are slow to clean up our exhaust fumes, to maintain intelligent reading habits, or to control our birth rate. The ozone story is one good example: Humankind enjoyed its CFC-powered air conditioning and styrofoams for many decades before anybody took the trouble to investigate what problems all this might be causing, and even then it was 15 more years before we got serious about eliminating CFCs. Now the atmosphere's ozone component is damaged, and it will not soon recover. Earth, including us, is paying the price.

We dare not accept science's benefits without accepting its responsibilities.

Speaking as a science teacher who is doubtless predjudiced in the matter, my first suggestion is that we all, including especially scientists, learn much more science. Scientists, usually only narrowly trained in one specialty, are among the scientifically illiterate. We scientists need to learn and to communicate more broadly, especially with non-scientists. Non-scientists need to learn more about the physical universe and our planet. Humankind is using great power today, without knowledge. We are still in our technological childhood. If we want this experiment to succeed, we had better begin to understand what we are doing, for the use of great power without knowledge is always a prescription for disaster.

Comparing Newtonian and post-Newtonian physics

This topic runs deep into the cultural roots of western industrial civilization. Modern culture, including plenty of scientists, still perceives science largely in outdated Newtonian terms. Newton's mechanical universe is a materialistic worldview that leaves little room (no room, really) for freedom, chance, or creativity. Many people would argue that it leaves little or no room for spiritual values.

But modern physics paints a quite non-Newtonian picture. It's most basic elements are not really particles, but are fields and energy, as structured by relativity and quantum theory. Many non-Newtonian forms of energy exist, and the universe emerges not as a predictable clockwork mechanism, but rather as a dynamic and unpredictable network of energy. Material and nonmaterial particles pop unpredictably and briefly in and out of their fields. This is nothing like a clock. In many ways it is the opposite of a clock. Considering the hidden and often distant interactions that seem to be the essence of the quantum world, many have suggested that, if we are to use images at all (and apparently we are, for physicists have used the clockwork image for many centuries now), then the universe is more comparable to a living, integrated, unpredictable organism than it is to a dead, reducible, predictable clock.

It is by no means clear what philosophical view will emerge from all of this. I feel that the world is just beginning to absorb the impact of relativity and, especially, of quantum theory. This is not surprising. After all, more than a century elapsed after Copernicus' death in 1543 before Europe began to absorb the cultural impact of post-medieval science. The post-Newtonian century will be the 21st, not the 20th.

One practical example of the importance of forming a post-Newtonian worldview might be the ongoing reaction, in the US at least, against the theory of biological evolution. The reaction comes from a perceived threat to religious beliefs. Religious fundamentalists typically view evolutionary theory as mechanical, deterministic, and materialistic, with no room for spirtual values. Thus the real opposition may be not to evolution itself, but to evolution as interpreted through the concepts of Newtonian physics. A post-Newtonian culture might relieve these old religiously-based science anxieties.

How do we know?

Science's answer to this question is surprisingly simple: We know by experience, as interpreted through intelligence. Science's "method" is simple, but fundamental. It is to take nothing for granted, to form one's views on the basis of careful observations and hard honest thinking, and to be willing to modify those views in the light of new observations. It comes down to being observant, open-minded, and honest.

The 20th century has been torn by rigidly-held and conflicting ideologies. The nationalistic, religious, economic, and ideological forms seem to come in every imaginable variety, many of them in utter contradiction with each other. Yet those who believe them are all absolutely convinced that they are right. The result has been war, fear, predjudice, fanaticism, and, perhaps most frightening of all, willful ignorance. Science's view on this is that the danger lies not so much in the beliefs themselves, as in their absolute nature . Even wrong and harmful beliefs can be corrected if one is willing to trust experience and to be intellectually honest. And even correct and healthy beliefs can become dangerous if accepted uncritically or absolutely.

In thinking about how we might do better in the 21st century than we have in the 20th, we should perhaps ponder science's most basic value: All ideas are subject to testing by experience, and to challenge by critical rational thought.

It is a simple but demanding code. It is often uncomfortable, even painful, to honestly re-evaluate one's beliefs in the light of experience. It might be science's most important benefit.

Art Hobson